Schools learn to adapt as students get more diverse

Perrysburg student Monisola Oyeleke, born in New Jersey to Nigerian immigrants, moved to Nigeria before going to Perrysburg.

When Dan Greenberg looks out at his class in Sylvania’s Southview High School, he sees a different group than he did on his first day with the district 18 years ago.

He sees more students of color, and he hears more languages spoken.

He also knows that across the suburban district’s 12 buildings, more students are coming to class hungry and tired.

“People are pushing out into the suburbs, and it’s changing the face of our students and it’s changing the needs of our students,” Mr. Greenberg said.

Toledo’s suburban schools have seen a small but steady increase in minority students in the last 10 years, a trend that has area educators changing the way they teach and administrators changing the way they hire.

In Sylvania, the whole staff has committed to being “culturally responsive,” and administrators brought in someone to help recruit a more diverse team of educators. In Perrysburg, a diversity committee meets monthly to discuss how the district can better serve minority students and their families.

RELATED CONTENT: General overview of student demographics by district ■ Detailed breakdown of student demographics by district

Other area districts offer diversity and inclusion training as professional development.

“I think we have to meet students where they are in the classroom. If students feel safe, if they feel they’re respected, if they feel loved and valued, they’re going to be better learners,” Perrysburg Superintendent Tom Hosler said. “So I think it’s our responsibility to make sure we’re creating an environment where students feel that way.”

The numbers

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The Blade compiled student demographic data from eight Lucas County districts, as well as Perrysburg Schools and Rossford Exempted Village Schools in Wood County and Bedford Public Schools in Michigan’s Monroe County. Each saw an increase in racial diversity over the last decade.

The growth of nonwhite students ranged from 4 percentage points to nearly 11 percentage points, depending on the district. While the numbers don’t point to a drastic shift, school officials say it’s enough to warrant a response to ensure each child is being taught effectively and equitably.

“Our kids are coming in with different backgrounds. We can’t just say, ‘This is the Sylvania way and you better change for us,’ ” Mr. Greenberg said. “We have to be willing to adapt and change our ways with kids.”

In Sylvania, about 12 percent of students were minorities in the 2006-07 school year, while in 2015-16 they comprised close to 17 percent of the student population, Ohio Department of Education data show.

Perrysburg Schools figures closely mirrored Sylvania’s, with about 11 percent of students identifying as nonwhite in 2006-07 and about 16 percent last school year.

Perrysburg’s largest demographic change has been an increase in Latino students, which now make up about 7 percent of the student body versus 3 percent 10 years ago. The district has a robust English as a second language program, and it helps many more than Spanish-speakers, Mr. Hosler said.

In the last decade the school’s program has served students who have spoken 21 languages.

“It’s incredible when you stop to think about all the different languages,” he said. “Arabic, Romanian, Russian, those are some right now that we’re juggling.”

Maumee City Schools saw an increase in nonwhite students of about 10 percentage points in a 10-year period. Ottawa Hills Schools’ minority population grew by almost 9 percentage points, with the largest bump in students who identify as Asian or Pacific Islander.

Springfield Local Schools’ also saw a 9 percentage point increase in nonwhite students; Rossford Exempted Village Schools saw an 8 percentage point increase; and Oregon, Anthony Wayne, and Bedford Schools each saw about a 4 percentage point growth in nonwhite students for the same time frame.

Washington Local Schools, while in the city of Toledo, has demographics that more closely resemble suburban districts. Students of color increased about 11 percentage points in the last decade, from about 18 percent to 29 percent.

The response

“Cultural responsiveness” has become part of the Sylvania Schools vocabulary.

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In December, 2016, about 80 teachers, administrators, and staff participated in a three-day training designed to help educators better meet the needs of minority students and those who face economic hardship.

They heard stories from their district about Middle Eastern students struggling to learn English — officials said 120 students speak Arabic as their primary language — and about impoverished students who don’t have access to computers to complete assignments.

Much of the training focused on ways to make education more equitable, and teams from each building were tasked with forming a plan to ensure all students’ needs are met, regardless of race, religion, or economic situation.

“For me as a classroom teacher, it makes it easier because I’m thinking in a different way,” Mr. Greenberg said. “My kids need certain things they may not have needed before. It reframes my thinking about meeting those needs.”

Perrysburg’s diversity committee formed a few years ago with two goals: Educate staff and better serve students. The group has brought in speakers for staff, and in November, 2016, hosted a community forum.

The event featured a snapshot of the diverse community at Perrysburg schools: A black student, a student who identifies with the LGBTQ community, a Jewish student, a mother of a student with special needs, and a representative from the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo all spoke.

Monisola Oyeleke, a Perrysburg High School senior who will attend Howard University in Washington, in the fall, was born in New Jersey to Nigerian immigrants. She moved to Nigeria when she was 10 before coming to Perrysburg when she was 15.

At the forum she talked about moving to the predominantly white community, including fielding insensitive questions about life in Nigeria, and said she wants people to understand that immigrants have a harder time achieving than their white counterparts.

Monisola said she has watched Perrysburg grow more racially and ethnically diverse, and she’s glad her school is giving minorities a voice in the community. But she believes there’s more to be done.

“I feel like it was a great discussion and it was a great way for people to learn more about the different cultures that were represented there, but I wish that Perrysburg has more of these forums for people to come and listen,” she said.

Maumee Schools had one of the largest jumps in racial diversity. The district has seen a steady growth of black, Latino, and multiracial students in the last decade.

“We’re becoming a more diverse school district, but from the perspective of our students these are the kids they’ve grown up with, so to them, we’re no more diverse than when they started school,” Maumee Superintendent Todd Cramer said.

He said building relationships with students and families is how teachers can gain an understanding of where the kids in their classrooms are coming from. The district regularly hosts neighborhood coffees and recently completed a parent survey.

Recruitment

In the city of Toledo, the numbers paint a different picture from the suburbs.

Perrysburg High School teacher Terri Camp helps senior Monisola Oyeleke on a project. Monisola participated in a diversity forum the district held in November.

Toledo Public Schools has a much more diverse student population, with 42 percent black, about 38 percent white, 11 percent Latino, and 9 percent identifying as multiracial in the 2015-16 school year. The change in racial demographics for the district has been minimal over the last decade, with African-Americans and whites slightly down and Latinos slightly up.

But TPS and its suburban counterparts face a similar challenge: The students who fill the seats in the classroom may be more diverse, but the adults standing in front of the class are not.

A 2012 Ohio Department of Education report indicates the racial disparity between students and their teachers is a statewide issue. As of the 2008-09 school year, about 94 percent of teachers identified as white. Five percent identified as black, 0.6 percent as Latino, 0.4 percent as Asian or Pacific Islander, and 0.1 percent as American Indian or Alaskan native.

Those figures have remained “virtually constant” over the past 10 years, according to the report.

“Diverse staff serve as role models for students, help students navigate complex social environments, and improve staff cultural competency,” the report states.

In Toledo, 62.42 percent of students identified as nonwhite in 2015-16, compared to only 14.6 percent of teachers, according to state data. TPS recruits teachers from historically black colleges and recently began working with the University of Toledo to bring its student-to-teacher ratios more in sync.

UT education professor Lynne Hamer is program director of Teach Toledo, a partnership between TPS and UT that aims to recruit Toledo citizens to be Toledo teachers. She said diverse educators are needed both to advocate for students of color and those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but also to be role models for all children.

“After parents, or whoever is in the parental role, teachers are the person who kids spend the most time with,” she said.

TPS came under fire in 2010 when parent groups alleged that students at the district’s high schools with largely black enrollment had been denied educational opportunities afforded to students at buildings with fewer minorities. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights launched a compliance review as a result, and in January, 2016, the two parties came to an agreement.

As part of the resolution, TPS agreed to ensure all students in kindergarten through eighth grade have access to school libraries and check out books with the same frequency; provide distance learning courses, including Advanced Placement classes, to high schools in a “racially equitable manner”; and conduct outreach activities to monitor how it distributes resources.

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Role models

Suburban districts also are ramping up efforts to recruit diverse teachers.

In Sylvania, 16.55 percent of students were nonwhite in 2015-16, compared with 2 percent of teachers, state data shows. District administrators brought in longtime Sylvania resident Bishop Chester Trail to help them change that.

Bishop Trail, who leads Grace Temple Church of God in Christ in Toledo, moved to Sylvania in 1964 and said he was one of few minority families living in the suburb. He sent his three daughters to Sylvania public schools, and they sent their children, five in all, to the district as well.

“I saw how the demographics have changed,” he said.

For the past two years Bishop Trail has worked by contract for Sylvania Schools as a diversity recruitment specialist, and board members recently expanded his role.

His job is now threefold: attract minority job candidates, help facilitate districtwide diversity initiatives, and share his own story with students and staff.

He wants students to have mentors of all backgrounds.

“We need the white teachers. We need the females. We need the minority teachers,” Bishop Trail said. “That gives our children a total perspective of where we’re going and how our community — which is again changing — how we can get to a point to appreciate that.”

Other districts’ officials echo Bishop Trail’s sentiment, but several said hiring a more diverse staff is difficult.

Smaller districts such as Rossford, Oregon, and Maumee often see less staff turnover, and therefore have fewer opportunities to hire, officials said. The pool of job-hunting teachers has also shrunk, and people of color still are in the minority. In the 2014-15 school year, 82 percent of professional education students at UT and 88 percent at Bowling Green State University were white, Ms. Hamer said.

Even so, TPS, Sylvania, and Perrysburg are among those making a concerted effort to bring in diverse hires.

“We want to make sure we’re hiring teachers who students can look at and say, ‘Finally there’s someone who looks like me or sounds like me,’” Mr. Hosler said.

Looking ahead

Several school officials said recent efforts to be more culturally informed are the start of more to come. Maumee schools intends to keep an open dialogue between parents, students, and educators. Perrysburg schools is working to do the same.

Ensuring all students have an equal shot at quality education means understanding more than just race, Mr. Hosler said.

“Race is just one of them. Religion is another, sexual orientation, socioeconomics, students who are on an IEP [individualized education program], we want to make sure we’re recognizing all those variables, not just black and white,” he said.

Bishop Trail said he’s proud to see Sylvania’s administration giving “more than just lip service” to the uptick in diversity. They’re putting in time and resources to address learning barriers that 10 years ago were seldom found in their classrooms.

His next goal is to create a community coalition of people from various backgrounds to help advise Sylvania Schools on continued professional development or future policy decisions. It’s something he hopes could spread to other area districts.

Embracing different races, cultures, and religions needs to be part of a school’s culture, he said, not a onetime exercise.

“To be an effective school system we need to be able to have the awareness that our community is changing,” Sylvania Superintendent Scott Nelson said. “It’s not just ethnicity. We’re really looking to broadly be aware of those things that our kids are dealing with on a daily basis.”

Contact Sarah Elms at: selms@theblade.com or 419-724-6103 or on Twitter @BySarahElms.